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Vatican reviewing German synod proposals to veto bishops, elect pastors, ordain women

The Vatican is reviewing a set of proposals under consideration for approval by the general assembly of the “Synodal Path” of the Catholic Church in Germany. The proposals include the election of bishops and pastors by Church members, elected lay committees with the power to overrule the decisions of bishops, and call for a vote among German Catholics on the ordination of women to the priesthood.

The proposals are made in a document called the “Fundamental Text” of the synod’s Forum I, a working group focused on proposing changes to the Catholic Church’s structures of governance. The Pillar obtained a copy of the document, which has been sent to Church leaders in Germany.

Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck. Credit AcBahn/wikimedia. cc by sa 3.0

The text was adopted by the working group in December, and has been made available to all members of the “synodal path,” an official assembly of German bishops and lay delegates that aims to suggest structural and doctrinal changes to the Catholic Church in Germany.

The working group is chaired by Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck, who has expressed openness to the priestly ordination of woman, and by Claudia Luecking-Miche of the Central Committee of German Catholics, an influential lay organization partnered with the German bishops’ conference to organize the country’s “synodal path.”

Organizers will schedule a vote of the entire synodal assembly on whether to adopt the “Fundamental Text” as an official resolution of the synod.

Addressing the Church’s systems of governance, the text urged that “monistic structure of powers must be overcome, according to which the legislative, executive and judicial powers are concentrated exclusively in the office of the bishop and, at the parish level, all leadership authority lies with the pastor, who can delegate it partially to others, but can also withdraw it from him at any time in the event of conflict.”

At the parish and diocesan level, committees should be given the power to veto decisions made by pastors or bishops, the group said.

“Committees must be democratically legitimized ... They must control the executive. If it is foreseen that the bishop or the pastor can veto a decision, a qualified majority must be established by which it can be overruled, if necessary.”

Provisions exist in canon law already which require pastors and bishops to obtain the consent of lay committees for certain acts of financial administration. But suggestions that lay committees could veto the administrative decisions of bishops or pastors would likely be seen in Rome to contravene the Church’s doctrinal correlation between the power of ecclesiastical governance and the sacrament of orders.

The text also urged that laity be given the right to elect their pastors and bishops.

“An essential form of participation is the right to vote,” the text said.

“Whoever is entrusted with a leadership office in the Catholic Church must be elected for this purpose by the people of the Church, if necessary through elected representative bodies.”

Provisions by which pastors and bishops would be elected by parishioners are periodically floated in the Church, but have rarely gained traction in Rome, largely because the prerogative to appoint or confirm episcopal and pastoral candidates is regarded as an aspect of ecclesial governance correlated to the sacrament of orders.

The text also addressed the possibility of ordaining women to the diaconate and priesthood. The working group “aims at admitting women to the diaconate,” the text said.

While it acknowledged Pope St. John Paul II’s 1994 declaration that the Church has no power to ordain to women to the priesthood, the working group said that because “new insights into the witness of the Bible, into the developments of Tradition, and into the anthropology of gender, the coherence of his argumentation and the validity of his statement are often questioned.”

On priesthood, “Forum 1 proposes that the church in Germany, during the Synodal Path, should also give a reasoned vote on the question of the admission of women to ordination, which includes an invitation to the universal Church and the Apostolic See to study anew the questions raised, and to find solutions,” the working group said.

Even while addressing specific theological issues, the text warned against assertions of ecclesiastical authority over competing truth claims, even on religious and doctrinal matters.

“A handling of complexity that is attentive and sensitive to ambiguity can be regarded as a basic signature of intellectual contemporaneity — and also encompasses today's theology. For theology, too, there is no one central perspective, no one truth of the religious, moral and political world, and no one form of thought that can lay claim to ultimate authority. In the Church, too, legitimate views and ways of life can compete with each other even in core convictions. Yes, they can even at the same time make the theologically justified claim to truth, correctness, comprehensibility and honesty, and nevertheless be contradictory to each other in their statements or in their language.”

A senior official at the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops told The Pillar Sunday that the congregation is aware of the document, which is now under review at the Apostolic See.

“The congregation has intervened before to remind the German bishops’ conference of the nature and limits of authentic synodality, in line with the Holy Father’s own letter on the matter.”

“Dialogue is always preferable to confrontation. But authentic dialogue does not grant endless license to proceed on an independent path apart from the proper authority of the universal Church. In the Church, communion and hierarchy are inseparable supports to the Church’s mission,” the official told The Pillar.

Pope Francis has warned in the past that the German assembly, for which planning began in 2019, has no authority to change the discipline or doctrine of the Catholic Church. But the organizers of the synod, which is scheduled to take place over a period of several years, have persisted in developing recommendations on changes to the Church’s canon law and doctrinal teaching in several areas, including Church governance, sexual morality, priesthood, and women’s ordination.

While the working group’s text said that decisions approved by the synod are expected to be adopted and respected across the Church in Germany, Vatican officials have disagreed. In October 2019, Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta Ochoa, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, said the proceedings of the German bishops’ conference offered a false impression that the synod’s deliberations could be binding.

“It is useless for anyone to pretend that the German synod is binding, because no one has given that authority to the German synod. No one can bind the faithful beyond their authority to bind or pastors beyond their authority to bind.”

The Pillar has posted the full text of the “Fundamental Text” of Forum I here.